Wednesday, April 19, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Nothing like a trip to Citizens Bank Park to cure what ails you.

A Washington Nationals club that was consumed by issues on and off the field when it arrived at the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark yesterday sure felt a lot better about itself by day’s end.

With a 10-3 thumping of the Phillies before 20,072, the Nationals got a chance to enjoy life for a change. No worries about ownership, no complaints about shoddy performances, no questions about management in trouble with the law.

Just baseball.

“I know you hear this a lot, but this is what we’re taught: Only worry about what you can control,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “And all we can control is what’s on the field. The stuff that goes on away from the field, you just can’t worry about that.”

The Nationals had plenty to worry about yesterday, not the least of which was the news of general manager Jim Bowden’s arrest for DUI early Monday morning in Florida. But they didn’t show it on the field, and as a result, they celebrated their third straight victory by evening’s end.

After a horrendous start to the season, Washington (5-9) just may be creeping its way back to respectability.

“Things are starting to come together,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Like I told you guys, it was very important that we got something going before we dug a deep hole for ourselves. It takes an awful lot to come out of that. Slowly, we’re starting to do that.”

And they’re doing it without all of their top guns. With Jose Guillen sidelined for the fourth straight game with a strained oblique muscle and Jose Vidro back in the lineup but still hampered by a tight hamstring, Robinson had to look for other sources of offense in this hitter-friendly park.

He received it from three other players. Rookie Ryan Zimmerman hit two doubles and drove in a career-high three runs. Surprise right fielder Daryle Ward homered and doubled himself in a 3-for-4 effort. And reinvigorated center fielder Ryan Church put the game on ice with a ninth-inning grand slam, his third homer in two games.

A team that was batting .239 with 16 doubles through its first 13 games had six doubles and two homers to rout the Phillies and starter Cory Lidle (who had been 6-0 with a 2.66 ERA in 10 previous starts against the franchise).

“You have good results when you have good at-bats,” Robinson said. “And we had a lot of good at-bats tonight. Everybody chipped in.”

That includes Ward, the defensively challenged slugger who had been thriving as a pinch-hitter in the season’s first two weeks. He hadn’t played an inning in the outfield since 2004 with the Pirates, but Robinson was desperate for some offense so he started him in right field in Guillen’s place.

Ward immediately made the move pay off. He connected on the first pitch he saw from Phillies starter Cory Lidle in the top of the second, sending his second home run of the season into the right field bleachers. Two innings later, Ward nearly did it again, belting a double off the wall in left-center.

And he even made a couple of nice plays in the field.

“It was fun, it really was,” Ward said. “I was shaking the first couple innings, but the game ended up being fun.”

Of course, just about anybody with a bat in his hands would enjoy playing in this hitter’s paradise. How extreme is it? Consider that Zimmerman flied out to the base of the wall in left field right after Ward’s second-inning homer … despite having his bat shattered into two pieces by Lidle (1-2).

“It’s a beautiful ballpark,” Church said. “I love hitting here.”

Zimmerman didn’t hit the ball as far his next time up, but it was a more-productive at-bat. His fourth-inning double over right fielder Bobby Abreu’s head scored a pair of runs and put the Nationals up 3-1. Three batters later, they extended the lead to 4-1 when Zimmerman scored on Schneider’s groundout.

The game remained close for most of the evening, with Washington starter Tony Armas Jr. allowing the Phillies to draw back within one run on Pat Burrell’s fourth-inning homer. But even though he wasn’t at the top of his game, Armas (1-2) managed to keep the opposition scoreless after that.

He left after the sixth, still clinging to a 4-3 lead, but that changed in a hurry. The Nationals added two insurance runs in the eighth, then broke things open in the ninth when Church took reliever Geoff Geary deep to right for his first career grand slam.

“It was probably a ball, if I took it,” Church said of Geary’s 1-2 pitch. “But I’m glad I didn’t.”

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